Is Bellota ham produced outside of the Iberian peninsula?

Page from the calendar of the Très Riches Heures (November: pigs eating acorns)
Page from the calendar of the Très Riches Heures (month of November: scene in which pigs are eating acorns in the forest)
©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjZda

In practice we can see that jamón de bellota is only produced in Spain and Portugal, but this has not always been the case and perhaps it won’t be in the future either.

Pigs are eating acorns in the forests bordering the Mediterranean Sea long before it was domesticated by humans. The oaks in drier region and the cork trees and oaks in wetter areas were very common until a couple of centuries ago.

In Homer’s Odyssey, the goddess and sorceress Circe turned Ulysses’ companions into swine and fed them acorns, which suggests that in Ancient Greece pigs were fed on the fruit of the oak.

In the 15th century, a famous manuscript called “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry”, written in the central France, used a scene in which pigs are eating acorns in the forest (see the reproduction on the left) to illustrate the month of November. It’s a work by the painter Jean Colombre, dated between 1485 and 1486.

Marco, a reader of this blog, informs us that currently in France there are small amounts of pigs that feed on acorns on the island of Corsica and the department of Hautes Pyrénées and bordering regions near the Aragon Pyrenees.

Those in Corsica come from an autochthonous breed called Nustrale (or U Porcu Neru), a small and shaggy dark animal bred in freedom for nearly 2 years and also fed with chestnuts.

In the Pyrenees there is the black pig Bigorre (of the Gasconne breed), which was on the brink of extinction in the late 20th century. Our Pata Negra also went through a similar time of uncertainty during the 1970s.

Lower Franconia is a region in the state of Bavaria (Germany) where they have begun to recover the old ways of grazing pigs and feeding them acorns. What began as a pilot scheme in 2003 has become reality in the EICHELSCHWEIN® GmbH company (literally “Acorn Pigs, Inc.”). The German jamón de bellota with an 18 month curing period sells for €65/kg, in line with the cost of a Organic Iberian Bellota Ham from Jabugo.

Italy is one of the largest cured ham producers, but according to Giovanni Ballarini, President of the Italian Academy of Cuisine in the 12th century they stopped feeding pigs with acorns and other fruits of the forest and began intensive breeding in stables.

However, after seeing the success and acceptance of Spanish Iberico ham, various producers in southern Italy (Naples, Sicily) are reviving ancient indigenous breeds related to Iberian pigs. The most prominent example is the Prosciutto Crudo di Maiale Nero Siciliano Monti Nebrodi, made from pigs bred in freedom and fed with chestnut and acorns in mountainous pastures of northern Sicily.

In Morocco, on the northern slopes of the Atlas, it’s also easy to find oaks and forest similar to Iberian pastures. The tree bark is used in making dyes for clothes (one of the main economic activities of the country) and acorns can be purchased in local markets for human consumption. Muslims do not eat pork and therefore there are no ham manufacturers there today, but if the demand for this product is still increasing we shouldn’t rule out that some producers will begin using this part of Africa to fatten their stock.

 

Overseas Serrano Ham

Recently there has been several news stories concerning cured ham production in China and warned that the ham curing industry could suffer a similar relocation which has already taken place in other industries.

It is no secret that Asians are jamón enthusiasts. They have learned the Spanish and Italian techniques and have begun to produce it from white pigs. In a recent article in La Vanguardia, a researcher at the University of Córdoba stated that soon they will begin to use Iberico pigs.

It may not be good news for the producers of jamón de cebo (made from pigs fed with fodder), although right now production in China barely reaches 1% of that of Spain. Manufacturers of Iberian ham can rest easy, because playing such a complex ecosystem as the Mediterranean pasture is very difficult, although the Spanish entrepreneurs behind AcornSeekers claim to have achieved just that in Texas (USA), and expect to flood the American market with fresh meat and “Made in USA” Pata Negra hams.

The “Jamón de Huelva” Designation of Origin changes its name to “Jabugo”

Jamon de Huelva is renamed as Jamon de JabugoAfter several years of litigation, the Supreme Court of Madrid has overturned the decision of the Ministry of Agriculture which originally denied the name change. From now on, the “Jamón de Huelva” Protected Designation of Origin will be renamed “Jabugo”.

So far, only hams produced in Jabugo, such as Cinco Jotas, could carry this mark on its label. This left out a lot of producers in the same area (Sierra de Aracena), which could not benefit from the power of this brand although they still offered high quality Pata Negra ham with similar characteristics.

In favour of this change were the city of Jabugo itself, the Regulatory Council of the D.O and many residents and businesses within the swine industry. The main opposition was the Asociación Auténtico Jabugo (Jabugo Authentic Association) and two major manufacturers: Sánchez Romero Carvajal (Osborne Group), which is the manufacturer of Cinco Jotas, and Consorcio de Jabugo (Agrolimen Group).

From a consumer’s point of view, the change appears positive because it simplifies the product. Enough people have difficulty keeping up with the differences of race, food and the zone of production of pigs, and above all also need to know that Jamón de Jabugo is Jamón de Huelva, but that Jamón de Huelva can’t be considered as “de Jabugo”.

As for quality, the Regulatory Council will now have to ensure a much more valuable mark than previously, and should therefore put extra controls and filters in place in order to prevent a potentially huge disaster.

 

When will the change in D.O. come into effect?

It came into force last March. On August 1 2015 has been published in the Official Gazette of the Ministry published a resolution declaring it accepts the decision and the name change will come into effect, and on March 7 2017 the new name was entered in the Community Register of PDOs and PGIs.

 

11 reasons for the Price difference in Bellota hams

We can find Iberian jamón de bellota for less than €40/kg and for more than €400/kg. It’s a huge difference which is not justified solely by the quality of the final product, but a combination of different factors.

1. Breed

Better quality Pata Negra hams come from 100% Iberian pigs, which cost to raise is significantly higher than cross-breeds. They fatten a lot slower, they produce smaller hams and the litters are smaller in number.

2. Food on the farm

Iberian pigs on a farm
Iberian pigs on a farm, a few days before going to the pasture to start the montanera period (free-range grazing)

From weaning until it is driven to the mountain, the animal spends a few months on a farm, where it is fed on a diet of fodder. The pig can’t go from drinking the milk of its mother one day to eating acorns the next; it needs time to adapt. One example is what we do with human babies. Once they stop weaning we slowly begin to introduce baby food (cereals and fruit), alternating them with a bottle. This goes on for several weeks until the baby is ready to try other foods such as fish and meat, and later on dried fruits and nuts, etc.

Returning to animal food, there are many prices that are dependent on the quality of the raw material and the combination of cereals and other nutrients in the formula.

3. Age and weight on entering the montanera phase

The law sets minimum conditions for the age and weight to be able to label a ham “de bellota”:

  • The weight on beginning the montanera phase should be between 92 and 115 kg.
  • During the montanera phase they should be fattened at least 46 kg on a diet of acorns and grass.
  • The minimum age at slaughter is 14 months.
  • The minimum individual carcass weight (after removal of the skin, head and viscera) is 115 kg, except for 100% Iberian animals, in which case the minimum is 108 kg.

Thus, a producer who meets the minimum legal requirements is able to sell hams with a lower production cost than those who are significantly above the threshold, at the expense of quality, of course.

4. Duration of the montanera period

The Royal Decree 4/2014 rules that the pig must spend a minimum of 2 months in the pasture, but there are farmers who extend this by 1 or 2 months, or more. In some cases pigs are given 2 montanera periods. That is, when acorn season is over, they are brought back to the farm until the next season, when they will eat more acorns again.

The longer the montanera period is, the more acorns are eaten and the more exercise undertaken, and so the Pata Negra will be of a higher quality. But this comes with a cost: the shepherds and vets must work more, and the number of casualties among the pigs rises as a result of illness, theft or attacks from other wildlife that inhabit the mountain. Furthermore, the jamón will need more months of maturation, because the quality of the fat would be higher and so the oxidation would be slower.

5. Quality of the montanera

Iberian pigs eating acorns in the pasture
Iberian pigs eating acorns in the pasture

It’s not the fair to put 50 pigs in a pasture of 500 hectares, the same as you would put 100 in the same amount of space. They’d get half the amount of acorns.

Naturally the law limits the density of animals per square metre, and the density of oaks. Therefore manufacturers need to hire an inspection company to certify that their pastures are compliant. But even within the legal limits there are some producers who are closer to the minimum than others.

The quality and quantity of acorns is not the same at all times nor in all pastures. Pigs are very selective and will find the best acorns first, the biggest and sweetest, which are the major contributors to the overall quality of the hams and sausages.

6. Organic vs. Conventional

Undoubtedly one of the aspects that most influences the final price is the condition of organic ham. The limitation in pharmacological treatments raises the mortality of pigs, the absence of preservatives makes many hams spoil before being sold and the cost of the feed is much higher. We must also add the costs of certification and control of the authorities.

Production of organic Iberico ham in Spain is negligible; we only have half a dozen small producers.

7. Maturation period

Hams curing in the cellar
Hams curing in the cellar

A Jamón de bellota loses between 8% and 10% of its weight each year that it’s hanging in the cellar (between 7% and 9% in the shoulders). Basically what you lose is water. Thus, if the sale comes within 2 years instead of 3, we can reduce its price by about 10% while maintaining the same margin.

Not surprisingly the quality is not the same. One extra year of maturation brings new aromas, a more intense flavour and easier cutting.

8. Salt

Excess salt, besides being harmful to health also hides a lot of the flavours of ham. Consumers tend to prefer sweeter and softer Iberian hams, especially in recent times.

But what happens if we fall short of salt? Well, two things can happen:

  1. The meat contaminates and rots (salt is the main preservative), or
  2. The muscle tissue loses consistency and flavour. It’s what people in the business call jamón chicloso (gummy ham).

Thus, those manufacturers who strive to minimize the concentration of salt to get better tasting hams know they will have to throw out some pieces. Consequently, they’ll have to sell the others at a higher price to compensate for these losses.

9. Brand

Prestige, exclusivity and advertising campaigns have a direct effect on the selling price.

In 2006 Cárnicas Maldonado launched a special series of €1500 hams called Alba Quercus (renamed Albarragena). Others followed such as Joselito with his Vintage series at €2000 and Jamones Premium by Arturo Sánchez at €4.000… Logically the series don’t last very long; the hams are really good but the price per kg hardly justifies the final quality. In fact, they are often instruments for marketing campaigns.

On the other hand, manufacturers with strong brands know that customers are willing to pay a little more for the security that comes with their name and reputation.

10. Commerce

A ham of the same brand can be found at very different prices between one store and another. Not everyone works with the same margins. It’s also possible to lower the price of the ham but end up paying for the service: high delivery costs, very restrictive return policy, poor customer service…

The country where the trade is largely determines the final price. Some manufacturers require sellers to buy the product to the official importer only, and therefore the prices are usually much higher than in its place of origin or in a more competitive environment.

11. Time of year in which the purchase is made

The price of ham is usually quite stable throughout the year, although there may be periods of shortages that drive up the price. It happens, for example, when a manufacturer has exhausted the pieces of a campaign and the next lot are still a little tender.